On her fifth day as a Mind’s Eye Limerick Tour leader, Laetitia was still getting used to the library of the Emerald Victorian. The collection was quite eclectic. When she had reached to pull an Irish guidebook off the shelf, she found it next to a book on the castrati. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, women were banned from the stage, making it necessary for high parts to be sung by pre-pubescent boys. The ever-resourceful Italians came up with the idea of preserving the high male voice into adulthood through castration. During the Baroque Period, from 1600 to 1750, approximately 70 percent of operatic singers were castrati, as were some of the singers who performed Handel’sMessiah when it premiered in Dublin in 1742. After scanning the castrati book quickly, Laetitia put it back on the shelf and pulled out the Irish guidebook and began planning the day’s tour.
Not far from the city of Limerick is Kilmallock, an important town during the Middle Ages whose strategic location made it the frequent target of invading armies. Laetitia and her group visited the ruin of the local Benedictine priory, destroyed by a Parliamentary army during the English Civil War. Then they did a walk around the Kilmallock’s old town wall, about 70 percent of which remains standing.
Laetitia arranged for her group to meet her at a pub for dinner and then went there early to have a pre-dinner drink and think of a limerick for the day. Sitting at the next barstool was Colm, a former professor of music history from University of Limerick, who had forsaken the faculty ghetto around the campus when he retired and moved to Kilmallock. As it turned out, his research interest was the castrati. He also had a hobby of collecting memorabilia associated with wooden sailing ships. The juxtaposition of his two interests had led to a funny story. When he was having drinks at a pub with some male friends and told them he had purchased a bollock—a pulley-block at the head of a topmast used to haul up sails on wooden ships—his friends thought he had bought the severed body part of some famous castrato, sort of like the body parts of saints that became relics and were the prized possessions of the pious. The story provided Laetitia with the limerick of the day.
When Colm said he’d purchased a bollock
At a flea market down in Kilmallock
All the men were aghast
Though ‘twas one from a mast
That was used for the mainsail to haul up.